Pain of separation

Pain of separation

Dolan, Thomas G

Lengthy overseas deployments can be a challenge, especially to those left behind on the home front

(Editor’s Note: Spouses’ last names are not used at their request.)

When LeAnne’s husband was called up for active duty during the first Persian Gulf War, she thought it was tough enough trying to answer the questions of their three- and five-year-old boys.

It’s worse now that they are more than 10 years older and their father is deployed in response to Operation Iraqi Freedom, the Colorado mother said during the conflict.

They do not seem to want to talk about it as much. When President Bush spoke on television about the start of the war with Iraq, LeAnne’s sons asked if it was finally on, but did not seem to want to discuss it any further.

“You don’t know what they’re thinking,” she said. “My 17-year-old has headaches three-to-four days in a row. He’s all stressed out, and doesn’t even know it.”

And while the major fighting ended last month in Iraq and some Guardsmen are returning home, thousands more remain or are set to go to what still is a dangerous place. Thousands more are in Afghanistan, Bosnia, Kosovo or elsewhere around the world. In all, current mobilizations have separated about 100,000 Guardsmen from their families.

Family separation is one of the toughest parts about deployments and learning how to cope is one of the necessary challenges. Families left behind are also left to deal with a broken family structure, financial difficulties and ranges of emotions.

One of the first places to start coping is realizing that not only is there no way to escape the pain of separation, there is no predictable way of knowing how it will manifest, said Command Sgt. Maj. Bill Hoopes, acting Wyoming National Guard family coordinator.

“We see different cycles,” Hoopes said. “Some families go pretty well at first, then go downhill. And others start out with nothing going right, but later find a balance. I try to convey that feeling angry, irustrated, sad, any of those feelings are normal. The challenge is how you handle them.”

Handling children’s emotions is especially important. Hoopes tells parents whatever feelings their children are having are normal. And he serves as an outlet for them to vent.

“I don’t limit the time,” Hoopes said. “Then at the end I might give some suggestions so they don’t have the same degree of anxiety.”

Although LeAnne found that dealing with her young boys during the Operation Desert Storm was easier than her teenagers now, some parents find trying to handle young children’s concerns trying.

“They want to know where their dad’s at,” said Wyoming spouse, Beth Anne, about her three children, ages four, six and seven. “They’re mostly concerned about his safety.”

Even very young children understand their parent could die or be injured. Counselors say it’s best not to avoid answering these questions when they arise. It is also beneficial to provide specific details showing that their father or mother is safe.

“Our kids understand that their dad is in a specialized field as an assault bridge engineer, so is well protected,” Beth Anne said.

But it is harder when the spouse may be in the line of fire.

“My husband works as a supply sergeant who brings supplies up to the front lines if something breaks down,” said Jackie, who lives in Utah with her seven boys, ages 11 months to 16 years. “My husband talked to the children before he left, and said if they had any questions to ask me or their school counselors. Some of the older ones are staying a little quieter than I would like.”

The best way to work with children who may not understand where their emotions are coming from is to “meet them on their own turf” and let them talk about what they want, counselors said.

“As long as silence is positive, it’s all right,” said Col. Art Moore, a chaplain with the Idaho National Guard’s 124th Wing in Boise. “If it’s not positive … it’s always helpful to find a surrogate parent to act as a mentor. If the father is gone, this might be a coach or uncle or family friend.”

Anxiety about the possible loss of a parent can also manifest itself through disciplinary problems. Hoopes suggested giving kids responsibility to give them the sense that they are, to some extent, filling the shoes of the deployed parent.

“I met one family in which two boys were acting out,” he said. “I talked to the older one and tried to show how he should set a good example for his younger brother, and to care for him as his father would.”

For deployed personnel with access to a computer, e-mail can also help, some spouses have found.

“My husband e-mailed one of my boys who was giving me trouble,” LeAnne said. “He said, ‘We had an agreement. If I don’t hear of improvement really fast, I’m going to have your mother looking into sending you to a military school.’ It had an effect.”

And while it’s important to talk about issues as they arise, it is also important not to offer children more information than they are seeking, said Col. Rich Meyers, an Oregon National Guard chaplain.

“Limit the amount of news coverage that comes into the home,” Meyers said.

Another way to cope with emotional issues children face when a parent is deployed is to ensure they stick to a routine.

“Initiate family meetings and develop a plan that everybody can participate in,” Meyers said.

It is important to build structure, schedules and accountability, he added.

“Lay expectations and hopes for tomorrow and build strengths today,” Meyers said. “Challenge kids to contribute. Let them know everything positive they do today, whether playing well in a baseball game or working on a memory scrapbook they are all building for tomorrow when their father or mother comes home.”

One of the ways Linda’s daughter decided to help contribute was to sell baked goods to raise money for National Guardsmen.

“I was so proud of my daughter,” said Linda, who has two girls, ages six and eight and lives in Utah.

Spouses and counselors recommend joining family support groups to not only share concerns with other families in the same position, but to also work on projects together that help them feel closer to their deployed loved one. This is particularly important for Guard families who do not have the same support systems active-duty families do.

“If you’re on a base you’re surrounded by people who share the same problems and concerns that you do,” said Colorado resident, Natalie, whose husband is deployed. “But when you’re in a regular neighborhood, most people just don’t understand.”

Some spouses have found that local schools often do not know how to deal with children of deployed service members because. They simply don’t have the experience. As a result, some families decided to work through their family support groups with local school systems, teaching them more about the Guard and what it means to be a child of a deployed mother or father.

In addition to dealing with children, many families have financial difficulties when one spouse leaves for a lengthy period of time. While some families might earn about the same or more money when a spouse deploys, others lose money.

Natalie, who works with Colorado’s family program, said she fields phone calls from spouses seeking financial help. She gives them information about how to get interest-free loans. Some family support organizations will also help out financially if needed.

Family support programs will help spouses unfamiliar with the military pay system navigate the bureaucracy.

“In the transition to the active military life, the benefits are generally not as predictable as they are in civilian life, and this creates a significant concern in a lot of communities,” Meyers said.

Another unpredictable problem: Everything breaks down, from the plumbing to the car, when a spouse deploys, it seems.

But this is where family support groups can really help.

“The support has been overwhelming,” Linda said. “People say call whenever you need help, and they mean it. I don’t think I’ve ever known people so clear about how they’re willing to offer their support.”

In addition to providing financial or other practical help, support groups provide people to talk to who are going through similar experiences.

“It’s nice to talk to other wives to understand what they are going through and what they are doing,” Jackie said.

Meyers said it’s best for parents to talk about their feelings with other parents in support groups rather than placing the burden on their children, who are already stressed.

One of the best ways to avoid stress is to be proactive.

“Make sure everything is as economically and emotionally and spiritually sound as it can be,” Moore said. “Also, pray tor the best, but prepare for the worst. Make sure the insurance is up to date, have the last will and testament prepared, and general arrangements in terms of what the memorial service might be.”

And prepare for the spouse’s return. Even if a spouse comes home safety, there will still be adjustments.

“People can change,” Moore said. “A returning spouse should not go right back to work, but take time to adjust. Both sides should be ready to talk a little and listen a lot.”

Copyright National Guard Association of the United States May 2003

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